Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on October 4, 2009

Here are the passages for October 4th, 2009, the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
  • We’ll be spending the next several weeks reading the book of Job, so this serves mostly as an introduction. I find it interesting to note that the lectionary skips right over the first round of Satan’s attacks upon Job, and goes right to round two. Why do you think the lectionary does this?
  • What do you make of the verbal sparring between God and Satan? Based on this reading alone, and assuming you didn’t know anything else about God, what would you say God thinks about Job, that he would allow Satan to torment him so? The answers to this question might become important as we proceed with Job in future weeks. 
  • How would you respond to your situation if you were Job?  I’m sure there will be more to say about what this book has to say about the reality of suffering in our world in coming weeks.
Psalm 26:1-12

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
  • This is a week of beginnings! Not only do we start the book of Job this week, but we start the book of Hebrews, which we will also be following in the weeks to come. Although this book is grouped with the letters (sometimes called Epistles) in the New Testament, it really doesn’t start out much like a letter. We’re not introduced to who the author is (and, in fact, there really is no consensus on who the author of Hebrews is), we’re not told to whom the letter is addressed, and there isn’t the usual “Grace and peace to you” sequence that is traditional in most letters of this period. Instead, we just jump right in.
  • Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews knew the Jewish scriptures well. Just within the reading we have here, we see verses 6-8 quote Psalm 8:4-6 with minor alterations. Later, verse 12 refers to Psalm 22:22, again with small changes. You may want to compare these passages in your own Bible. Do you think that such changes as appear between Hebrews and the Psalms are significant? Why or why not? What is the author of Hebrews trying to say about Jesus by referencing these ancient texts? 
  • Separate from these lectionary reflections, I'm going to start commenting on (and linking to) a series of lessons on Hebrews given in 2001 by the late Dr. David M. Scholer, an American Baptist most known for his work on Gnosticism and advocating for the full inclusion of women in all forms of service to God.  They're not entirely appropriate to dwell on here, but I invite you to come over to Transforming Seminarian if you're interested.
Mark 10:2-16
  • It is one of the great tragedies of modern times that Christian marriages tend to end in divorce about as much as non-Christian marriages do, and Jesus does have some pretty strong words to say, but why do you think the Pharisees were asking Jesus this question in the first place? What kind of answer do you think they hoped he might say? How did the Pharisees view divorce? Usually, Christians tend to caricature the Pharisees as advocating more restrictive laws than Jesus does, yet in this passage, the opposite seems to be the case (at least on the surface). What’s really happening here?
  • It may be worth noting that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is not so much a prohibition on divorce, as it is praise for marriage. It is not until later, when Jesus is alone with disciples and they ask him more questions, that Jesus really says anything about divorce at all, and even that has less to say about divorce than it does about remarriage, a topic not explicitly brought up by the Pharisees. Why does Jesus answer these questions in this way?
  • Once again, we see Jesus encouraging people to let children come to him, and he uses them as an illustration of an important truth. We’ve seen Jesus say something about children a few times in the past few weeks. Why does Jesus talk about children so much?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Children's Bible

Recently, my wife and I started reading to our two girls from their Children's Bibles every night. Our kindergartner is in Logos now, so we thought that reading the same Bible that she's studying there would be good reinforcement. The girls both seem to be taking very well to a Bible story or two every night.

I've found it pretty interesting how Bibles for young children ("young" as in board books) tell some of the key stories from the Bible and what language they use. A couple of interesting observations from the first few books / pages:

  • In general, the naming of God uses gender neutral language. Many more "God"s than "He"s.
  • Adam and Eve both just happened to eat the apple from the tree. There's nothing to suggest that the snake told Eve and Eve told Adam. Just, the snake said "you should try it" and Eve did and Adam did.
  • There are no qualms talking about death. God clearly asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Joseph's brother clearly leave him for dead.
I can imagine that there could be a lot of controversy over anything that an author does in retelling Bible stories at a young child's reading level. It's also a very important job! If other studies on learning are any indicator, we develop some fundamental beliefs very early in life. How we talk to our children about the Bible is likely to have a huge impact on their development of faith and beliefs.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Evangelism Coach

The site I'm highlighting today isn't technically a member of the PCUSA web ring, but I think you might find this blog and website interesting.

Meet The Evangelism Coach, Presbyterian pastor Chris W, blogging about . . . you guessed it: evangelism!

Recent posts include:
  • 31 days to Improve Your Pastor Blog or Church Website
  • Training Church Greeters
  • Simple Church Websites that Work

And more!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Psalm 19 v 8 - Precepts

Psalm 19:8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

"Precept" is not a word that we use everyday, yet it is something that we apply daily. It means "teaching" and, more specifically, a rule that helps us make the right choice or head in the proper direction. Teachers were once known as preceptors and, when the Knights Templars were around, their place of instruction was called a "preceptory."

According to David, God's precepts give joy to our hearts. Why? Because it makes us feel good when we follow God's guidance and know that we are fulfilling His wishes. We've all felt that before, either when we've been praised by our parents for completing a heavy chore, or when our teacher has awarded us with an "A" for a special homework project, or when our boss and co-workers celebrate the successful ending of a team presentation. It's a great feeling and something that David says we can enjoy when we follow and fulfill the precepts of God.

Wherever you are today, there will be plenty of opportunities to apply God's precepts and experience His joy. Do all that you can to please Him. Give Him the glory for the teachings you fulfill.

Prayer:   Lord Jesus, You taught us many lessons through the teachings of the Gospel. Help us to apply God's precepts in our lives amongst the people we meet today and in all the things that we do. In Your Holy Name. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes the devotional blog "Heaven's Highway."

Today's image is taken from John's Psalms Project.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thursday Read and Learn: Book Review Have A Little Faith

Mitch Albom, the best-selling author of Tuesdays With Morrie, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and a slew of other books, has a new non-fiction book coming out September 29: Have A Little Faith: A True Story. When one of his publicists emailed and asked me if I would be willing to read an advance copy and write reviews for my blog and Presbyterian Bloggers, I was flattered and agreed.

I haven’t read any of Albom’s books except Tuesdays With Morrie. There are a lot of parallels between Tuesdays With Morrie and Have A Little Faith. Albom wrote a memorable character study of his beloved professor in Morrie and he writes another excellent character study of his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis. Albom develops a very close relationship with the “Reb” over several years after he agrees to the Reb’s request that he deliver the eulogy at his funeral and so visits with Lewis frequently in order to gather material for that purpose.

Albom’s first chapter “The Great Tradition of Running Away” will resonate with every religious leader or layperson who has ever said to God “Why me? Choose somebody else.” Although he professes to be mystified about the motive behind the rabbi’s request, it isn’t hard to conclude that the Reb wanted to have a well-known writer with a gift for characterization represent him at his service and to re-engage Albom in his Jewish faith.

Albom says that he was brought up in an observant Jewish home and studied his religion extensively, even leading youth groups while in college, until he graduated and, in his words, “pretty much walked off from it.” Lewis succeeds in both of his objectives--Albom includes the eulogy he delivered for the Reb in the book and it is truly memorable.

The story of the developing relationship between the author and the Reb is interwoven with the story of Henry Covington, an African American pastor in Detroit struggling with a poor minority congregation in the inner city and his own criminal past. Gradually the author comes to trust and respect the authenticity of Henry Covington’s faith and life and his need for atonement.

By far the stronger parts of the book are those that deal with Henry Lewis, the Reb. Albom shares a personal history, cultural, educational and religious affinity with him, so that is not surprising. I did not find the arrangement of the two different narratives helpful, but distracting, since almost every other chapter switched the focus. Sometimes two disparate narratives like these cannot be forced into one coherent whole.

Evangelism is a much-used and abused word in Christian circles these days. Have A Little Faith reinforces the proposition that true evangelism comes from developing relationships with others. As Albom said about Rabbi Lewis, “he had stirred up something in me that had been dormant for a long time. He was always celebrating what he called ‘our beautiful faith’...Maybe the faith didn’t mean that much to me, but it did to him, you could see how it put him at peace. I didn’t know many people at peace. So I kept coming...”

Or as the old saying goes, “preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.”

I’m sure the book will be well publicized. I’m told Mitch Albom is already booked on a host of television shows like Dr. Phil, Good Morning America and Fox and Friends to talk about it. It will probably be a best-seller and many people will find the two men described in the book inspirational figures. When I finished the book, though, I was left wondering whether the author ultimately reclaimed his faith in the God of his fathers, or just found faith in the idea of faith.

UPDATE: I edited the post to reflect the shows Albom has confirmed bookings on. I'm told there is not yet a confirmation on the Oprah Show.

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on September 27, 2009

Here are the passages for September 27th, 2009, the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
  • The Revised Common Lectionary is organized in such a way that Sunday readings are spread out over a three-year cycle, giving representation to all the various parts of Scripture.  Unfortunately, this means that, if the Sunday lectionary readings were all that a reader knew of the Bible, about 90% of the Old Testament would be missed entirely.  In the case of the book of Esther, this Sunday is the only time in the cycle that Esther is used, so if a pastor chooses to preach on this passage, the odds are they'll give a brief synopsis of the rest of the book. 
  • While I don’t want to summarize the entire story here, one important element that is not included in the reading is that Esther had to risk her life to meet with the King on her own initiative.  Generally speaking, it was the King who had to initiate any communication, even with one of his own wives such as Esther.  Esther found the courage to risk death when her uncle Mordecai told her of Haman’s plans to exterminate the Jews, and we see what happens as a result.  I would especially recommend reading Esther chapter 4 to get this context, but if Esther is not a book you’re familiar with, you might want to read through the whole book at another time to get the whole story.
  • Esther has the unique distinction of being the only book in the Bible that does not ever mention God.  Since the Bible is the basis for our religious faith, why do you think such a book was included?  What does God want to teach us through this story?
Psalm 124:1-8

James 5:13-20
  • This is the end of James’ letter, but it doesn’t really end like most biblical letters end.  Usually, letters end with a kind of “send off,” like “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Amen.”  James’ letter doesn’t have anything like that.  It just kind of… stops.  Why is that?
  • Most of this passage is an invitation for Christians to pray for their needs.  Some questions to consider: What kinds of needs have you brought to God?  Do you feel that God has answered your prayers in ways consistent with what James says?  How do you respond to this passage?  Similarly, how do you respond to James’ last word encouraging Christians to turn sinners away from error?  How does this advice connect to James’ words on prayer?
Mark 9:38-50
  • I often like to point out that this is one of pair of stories in the Gospels that have what appear, at least at first glance, to be conflicting messages.  In this one, Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us.”  The other (not accounting for the parallel passage in Luke) contains Matthew 12:30, which begins “whoever is not with me is against me.”  Is there anything about the context of these passages which can allow these seemingly contradictory ideas to be reconciled? 
  • Focusing back on Mark’s text, what does Jesus’ words have to say to us about how we respond to Christians of denominations that differ with what we have been taught to believe, even on important issues?  How about non-Christians?  What would it mean for someone to do something in Jesus’ name as described here?
  • Starting in verse 42, we move to a new story (at least, judging from the fact that the Lukan parallel is not in chapter 9, but rather in chapter 17!). Does the fact that different gospels choose to arrange these stories so differently have any significance?
  • Jesus refers to “little ones,” and I can’t help but think that Mark believes that Jesus is talking about children such as the one he referred to in verses 36 and 37, which was read last week.  Is this a correct interpretation?  (The parallel passage in Matthew 18:5-6 would indicate so, but the parallel passage in Luke chapter 17 does not indicate children at all.  Again, is the fact that the gospel writers made such distinct choices significant?) 
  • If Mark is referencing children here, this would suggest that the part in between these passages about how the disciples should respond to the man driving out demons is connected to the overall narrative.  How might such a connection influence our interpretation of this passage?
  • Finally, Jesus has some rather serious instructions to give to his followers about what they should do to avoid “stumbling” and causing others to stumble.  There is some debate as to whether Jesus intended his followers to take these instructions, such as the ones to cut off body parts, literally, or as a kind of hyperbole illustrating just how seriously we should seek to avoid sin.  How should we apply such instructions to our own lives?   And what does it mean to “have salt in [ourselves]”?  How about this language of being "salted with fire"?  What might such a strange turn of phrase mean?

Monday, September 21, 2009

More PC (USA) Bloggers

With an embarrassing admission of much ignorance, I have to admit that today was the first time I discovered the blogs of some of our denomination officers. Rather than the wise, insightful, and revolutionary post that I'm sure I could have written about the current scarceness of righteous intersections between church and politics (inspired by my Sunday School class based on Adam Hamilton's Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White and in direct response to a billboard for the Freedom From Religion Foundation I recently saw), I think I'll link to their blogs for you to enjoy...

  • Here I Am
    Brian Frick's thoughts from around the campfire.
  • Day by Day
    Helping church leaders live, learn and lead in spirit-filled ways
  • Eco-Journey
    Eco-Journey is the blog of the Environmental Ministries Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Highlights from the Blog Roll

Rev. Fred H. Anderson of The Rev's Rumbles resigns from the Freemasons on religious grounds, and points back to the PC(USA) blog. (For the record, I think Rev. Anderson was very respectful with his dissenting opinion. But, then, I am of the generation who is very comfortable putting our personal opinions online!)

The PC(USA ) Blog's own B-W weighs in on the nature of political debate in America today with You, Lie!" - Really? Why Would Wilson Have Done That? (This is a really great post.)

Castaway from Thoughts shared the fable of A Little Tea Cup. This is a story I'd not heard before and I really enjoyed it, both as an allegory for God and the tough experiences that have made me who I am, and also as a parent.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thursday Read and Learn: Ditch the Lectionary?

This week Presbyblogger Beau Weston at The Gruntled Center wrote a post called "Ditch The Lectionary." A lively discussion ensued in the comments to that post with opinions from clergy and layfolk alike weighing in.

Justice Seeker and I both attend churches that are not using the lectionary, but rather the pastor is preaching through a book of the Bible. I know at least one other church in my presbytery that is also doing this.

So what's your opinion? Is it time to ditch the lectionary in favor of preaching thoroughly through a book or theme of the Bible as Weston suggests?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on September 20, 2009

(I'm sorry. I must have hit the wrong button somehow. I had this written to be posted on September 16th, but I'm only finding out the evening of the 20th that it's still sitting in "draft," so I'm back-posting it now.)

Here are the passages for September 20th, 2009, the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.

Proverbs 31:10-31
  • OK.  Let's get my own bias out of the way.  I'm uncomfortable with the gender bias in this passage.  It lists tons of characteristics of a "capable wife," but very little is said about the husband (although the couple of things that are said about the husband are perhaps noteworthy).  Why is this?  Is there another passage (one for another week, perhaps?) that does the same thing for the "other side"?
  • For those of us who prefer to downplay the "innate" differences between genders, what does a passage like this have to tell us?  What differences are still appropriate to pay attention to?  Why?
  • What characteristics described here surprise you?  Are you pleasantly surprised, or annoyed?  Why?
Psalm 1

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
  • How do think James would define the word "wisdom" (or σοφιας, if you prefer to use the original Greek)?
  • "You do not have, because you do not ask," James says.  What about people of deep faith who nonetheless have great need?  Most of us can tell stories of those whom God seems not to have helped (at least, not in the ways we would have wanted).  What would James say to these people?  Would he be using this same direct language with them?  Would he tell them they have "ask(ed) wrongly," as suggested in this letter?
  • In this context, what does it mean to submit one's self to God?
Mark 9:30-37
  • This passage seems to be presented in two distinct parts: Jesus tells his disciples about his death and resurrection, and the disciples arguing about who's the greatest (with Jesus' response).  Why are these seemingly disconnected stories presented together in this way?  
  • We don't actually see the disciples argue in this passage.  Rather, Jesus asks them about a past event.  When did this argument take place (perhaps in relation to the teachings about death and resurrection?  And if so, what about that teaching caused them to start arguing about greatness?)?
  • What is it about children that Jesus wants to hold up as an example to the disciples?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Building "Church" with Social Media

One of the bloggers in our web ring has done a series of posts about the value of social media in the development of faith communities:

Using Social Media to Build Community, Part I
Using Social Medial to Build Local Community, Part II
If Jesus Were a Dog, Would He Tweet, Part III

Xan does an excellent job helping understand the value of some so seemingly impersonal as social media as a tool for developing the most personal kind of community. What she wrote really makes me think in a different way about the kinds of relationships that God asks us to participate in and how those relationships work in practical terms.

We often say that the best friends are the kind that you can be away from for 3 years, run into one day, and pick up as if you'd just seen each other last week. I have a few friends like that, with whom proximity in space and time don't impair our ability to rely on each other.

We also talk about the unseen presence an movement of the Holy Spirit in our relationships. It seems to me that an ethereal medium like social media, where physical presence no longer constrains community, is the perfect place to feel and experience the Holy Spirit.

Communities in which we aren't physical present do lead us to be more suspicious of others in the community. If we can't see others while we communicate with them electronically, how do we know anyone is who they say they are? Again, I think that faith plays a critical role in that community. In any relationship, we can mislead each other. But in nothing can we mislead God. So, there shouldn't be anything for us to fear from social media.

I'm excited to be part of this movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA)! I want more! I want to see hundreds of sermon podcasts on iTunes, the ability to attend my Sunday School class from Second Life when I'm out of town, as many PCUSA Facebook fan sites as their are churches in the denomination, and the ability to search Linked-In by church membership to search for my colleagues in faith.

Thanks to Xan for today's topic and inspiration!

Welcome Mat

Welcome to the newest member of the PCUSA Blog web ring!

Rev. Clyde Griffith of Christ Presbyterian Church of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. Clyde describes himself as: Pastor, Husband, Father, Teacher, Theological Practitioner, Eclectition, Humorist. Pastor, The Connecting Place: Christ Presbyterian Church, 3400 State Rd at Turner Ave, Drexel Hill, PA 19026

The blog is SezTheRev: Comments by the Pastor of The Connecting Place: a center of faith in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, USA, for Living Abundantly.

These are comments by the pastor of The Connecting Place -- Christ Presbyterian Church -- a center of faith for living abundantly in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, USA. We call this church The Connecting Place because that's what happens here: people connect with one another, with the world around them, and with God. Sooner or later most folks get tired of bowling alone and seek opportunities to connect with the world around them. We are here. Studies show that folks who participate regularly in a faith community actually live better, live healthier, and live longer than those who don't. Of course, we believers have known this to be true for far longer than the scientists have been studying the issue. It is no accident to see so many gray heads in our Presbyterian churches. In fact, we are told that Jesus said his primary purpose was to show how to live more abundantly. Worshiping together, social networking, stimulating the mind, delving into writings and beliefs of our faith, and passing on our faith to new generations drives what we do at Christ Presbyterian Church and what we try do here on this blog.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Presbyterian Devotions: Light of Liberty

Matthew 5: 14 "You are the world’s light. You cannot hide a city on a hill.

The days following the 9/11 tragedy were amongst the weirdest that many of us ever experienced. To begin with, there were no planes in the sky anywhere, so it seemed empty and quiet. Mostly everyone hunkered down in their own homes, glued to the continuous coverage on television. Restaurants and malls were practically empty and it appeared as though large and small communities throughout the United States would never be the same again.

And then flags started to appear everywhere. People had them attached to their cars, in the front of their homes, and at their businesses. The local newspaper contained a magnetic flag to be placed on automobiles or fridges in every home. We were brutally broken and totally shocked by the turmoil, but we crawled out of our caves and restarted to live our lives as the means to honor the innocent dead and to defy the terrorists their complete victory.

Out of the ruined rubble of our society, we rose up and overcame the darkness of despair. Freedom and liberty were now even more precious to us because they had been snatched away from us for a couple of days. Lady Liberty still stood as a sentinel before the smoking Manhattan skyline and we became just as resolute. Our duty was to show the world not just our resilience and defiance, but our faith in freedom and our light of liberty.

Within a week, our skies were filled with vapor trailing planes carrying our people from state to state and city to city. Within our hearts, we all silently vowed that we would prevail and that this would never happen again on our watch, in our cities, and across our land. We have remained true to that promise, and maintained that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are still the noblest and highest of rights to which any nation, kingdom, or people on Earth can ever aspire towards.

Even after eight years, we are still that light of liberty which the world seeks. We are still that shining nation of strength and hope that the Earth still needs.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we remember the dark days of 9/11 and continue to live our lives in honor of those who died. We pray for the bereft families, who were most affected by the losses at the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania. Keep us mindful of those days and ever watchful of the days to come. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send him an email to

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Calvinism and CT's Front Page

I really do know that not all Presbyterians are Calvinists -- but I am. I also know that Calvinism is the currently trendy flavor of choice amongst many Evangelical seminaries. Still, I was somewhat tickled to see a string of Calvin related stories on the Christianity Today RSS feed today.

I block copied this from CT's front page:

John Calvin: Comeback Kid
Why the 500-year-old Reformer retains an enthusiastic following today.

Also: The Reluctant Reformer
Also: Calvin's Biggest Mistake
Full Coverage: John Calvin

What Calvin Gets Right
Even those who vigorously disagree with the Reformer are still impressed.

Man of the Bible
Ben Witherington: When it comes to careful exegesis and consistent theological systems, Calvin set the bar high.

Theologian of the Spirit
Roger E. Olson: Calvin was no charismatic, but he was closer to it than some Reformed people readily admit.

A Common Hope
John Wilson: Much of 'Calvinism' is simply Christianity.

Do Not Despair; Do Not Presume
Mark Valeri reviews Peter J. Thuesen's Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine.

So, yet another post in the ongoing celebration of John Calvin's birth.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on September 13, 2009

Here are the passages for September 13th, 2009, the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.

Proverbs 1:20-33
  • The explicit personification of wisdom in this passage strikes me as unusual.  Can you think of other examples in Scripture where an abstract concept is depicted as a human being?
  • How would you describe "wisdom," as a person, based on the depiction in these verses?
  • What did the people of God do (or fail to do) to deserve this rebuke?  
  • Does this passage provide any hope for restitution?
Psalm 19:1-14

James 3:1-12
  • Why should teachers be judged more strictly?  What does it suggest about God's judgment that all are apparently not judged equally?
  • Why does James move so quickly from words to teachers, to words about speaking?
  • At the end of the passage, James uses several analogies indicating that certain types of things always yield predictable results.  What is he saying about that state of the tongue here?  Is the tongue inherently evil?  Is there really any hope for taming it?
Mark 8:27-38
  • When people respond to the question of Jesus' identity by talking about John the Baptist, Elijah and the prophets, are they thinking in terms of reincarnation?  If so, how do you think they reconcile this (or do they?) with their religious upbringing?  If not, what did they have in mind?
  • When Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, what did he have in mind?
  • Jesus has strong words of rebuke for Peter, even calling him "Satan."  What is Jesus' purpose here?  Is Peter actually possessed, or is something else going on?
  • In verses 35-37, the word translated "life" here, ψυχη, is often translated as "soul" (perhaps oddly, the TNIV renders the word "life" in verse 35, but "soul" in verses 36-37).   Does this interpretive issue have implications for our understanding of what Jesus is talking about?
  • What might it mean for us if Jesus were to be "ashamed" of us?  Is this a real danger? 

Monday, September 07, 2009

PC(USA) You Tube Channel

As I went searching my thoughts and the internet for a topic to post on today, I ran across an announcement on the PC(USA) website about a PCUSA YouTube channel! Check it out.

Some fun highlights:


Labor Day!

Prayer of Confession for Labor Day Sunday:
by: Ryan M. Rubin, Yale Divinity School, M.Div. candidate

Merciful God, remembering the promise that if we confess our sins, you are faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and leaning on your infinite grace given to us through Christ Jesus, we confess our sins to you.

We have not loved you with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, or all our strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

For the times we deny our sinfulness and expend our strength in justifying ourselves — we seek your mercy.

For the times we seek unjust gain by doing in private what we would not do in public — we seek your mercy.

For the times we work for personal advancement without regard for the well-being of our communities and the world — we seek your mercy.

For the times we place such importance on work and material gain that we trample on others who stand in our way — we seek your mercy.

For the times we prefer ignorance over knowledge which compels us to help our sisters and brothers who are harmed by our work or our consumption — we seek your mercy.

For the times when we harden our hearts against those who are exploited, rather than at their exploitation — we seek your mercy.

For the times we know that it is wrong to do these things, and seek to do them anyway — we seek your mercy.

For the times we allow -- through our action or inaction -- economic systems that distribute vast wealth to some at great cost to others — we seek your mercy.

For the times,when in despair or apathy, we have given up on you and the “new creation” you have promised to our world and to our workplaces in Christ Jesus – we seek your mercy.

All of God’s people, hear the good news: in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven. Loving God, we thank you that you hear our confessions. We pray that you would strengthen and encourage us for these struggles when they arise again. And we pray that the Holy Spirit would lead us into true repentance and newness of life. Amen.

Welcome to our newest member of the PCUSA Blog Ring, Just 3 Things. As the name implies this blog is about just 3 things, Faith, Life and Birds. I hope to post three times weekly, once about each topic. Your comments are welcomed! This blog like my life is a work in progress.

Just 3 Things (did you catch the Trinity reference?) is written by Rev. Vernon Gauthier of First United Presbyterian Church of Newville, Pennsylvania.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Sunday Devotions: The Wrong Path

Psalm 119:104 I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.

There’s a controversy brewing over an ad that the World Wild Life Fund had commissioned in Brazil. The ad depicts over one hundred airplanes heading directly to Manhattan with the intention of impacting the skyscrapers. Beside the Panda logo is a line which reads: "The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it."

Many people, especially New Yorkers, are outraged about the ad. With the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks just a week away, it is tasteless and insensitive. If the ad company just wanted to shock people, then they’ve obviously succeeded, but if they wanted to get people to support the World Wildlife Fund, they have seriously gone down the wrong path.

What is it with people these days? Do they have no conscience? Is 9/11 so far removed from our hearts and thoughts that we can mock it like this? I remember that apocalyptic day very well and it changed my life forever. I’m certain that those who lived through Pearl Harbor have kept December 7th sacred in their hearts and memories, so why can’t we respect and honor those who innocently died on that tragic day in 2001?

One of the important qualities about the Christian faith is that it is meant to show us how to take the right paths in life and avoid the wrong ones. As Christianity diminishes in Western society, it makes me wonder how many wrong paths we will brazenly take over the next 25 years. Will there be no moral boundaries? Will there be no honor or respect? Will humanity just drag itself down into a morass where faith, hope, and love no longer survive?

I honestly hope not, because I think we were created for higher, nobler, and greater things. So my prayer today is that we all return to Christ’s teaching and God’s precepts to show us the way forward and keep us from going down the wrong path.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we appear to be fragmenting as a faithful society and Christian community. We follow our own paths and march to the sound of our own drums. Forgive us for our foolish notions, wasteful ways, and misguided choices. Help us to return to Your words, so that we can we can be restored to God’s love and kingdom. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send him an email to

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Read and Learn -- WSJ Promotes the Presence of God

I was reading the Wall Street Journal the other day. Buried in the back was a book review of a book that I have not read, The Third Man Factor, by Michael J. Ybarra. The review briefly describes a number of examples of what the book refers to as the "third-man phenomenon". One of which involved a mountaineer and is described:
On the way down, he stopped to eat a mint cake, cutting it in half to share with . . . someone who wasn't there but who had seemed to be his partner all day.
There are several other brief mountaineering stories, a mention of Charles Lindbergh feeling a ghostly companion on his solo flight across the Atlantic and others.

The Wall Street Journal describes the book as:
. . . . a highly readable, often gripping, collection of survival stories, alongside a survey of theories that attempt to explain the third-man phenomenon.
Amongst the possible explanations for this "third-man phenomenon", according to the reviewer, the author prefers a biochemical survival strategy hard-wired into our brains. The book discusses in support of this theory research that claims to produce this "third-man phenomenon" with electrical stimulation of the brain.

Although the review seems to indicate that neither the author of the review nor the author of the book is buying the very real presence of God as the explanation, I find it interesting that an article in the very secular Wall Street Journal takes a position so consistent with the idea that our Creator designed us to walk with him.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on September 6, 2009

Sometimes, it feels like life is just a constant barrage.  Right now, the area of Southern California in which I live is preoccupied with the fires in this area.  I have a few reflections on that over at my own blog, but suffice it to say, my wife and I seem to be in no real danger from the fires.  Even so, prayers are very much appreciated for this area, for those displaced by the fires, and for those who continue to fight them.

That said, here are the passages for September 6th, 2009, the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
  • I'd have to pull out either my Hebrew grammar or a commentary to be sure, but offhand, as I read the word "name," I'm wondering if the text is trying to say "reputation."  Is this accurate?  If not, what is about a "name" that is so important?
  • This is one of those passages (there are quite a few) that tries to draw a direct link to a person's actions (for good or evil) and what happens to that person.  Yet, we all can point to examples of a person doing something wrong, yet never suffering consequences for those actions.  How are we to deal with this reality?
Psalm 125:1-5

James 2:1-10 (11-13) 14-17
  • The Revised Common Lectionary allows churches the option of reading--or not reading--the verses in parentheses.
  • The situation James describes throughout this reading doesn't seem to have changed much in modern times.  Why have we not learned our lesson?
  • I read someone recently who suggested that the response James describes in verse 16 is essentially the same as a person who prays for a poor person in their midst, yet doesn't actively help that person.  Is this suggestion fair?
  • I think that James is a particularly difficult book for Presbyterians, because we (rightly!) don't want to sound like we're arguing that our salvation is based on anything but God's action.  We can't do a thing.  Yet we do affirm the need for actions of grace such as James describes here.  How do we balance these ideals in our preaching?
Mark 7:24-37
  • Why does Jesus seem so reluctant at times to let other people know that he is present?
  • Verse 27, in particular, is one of the hardest sayings of Jesus to understand.  Why would Jesus speak this way to this person?  He doesn't sound compassionate at all, and in fact sounds a bit racist (admittedly recognizing that it sounds this way to my ears for reasons that might well not have been in play in the first century)!  On the other hand, I'm glad not only that Mark's gospel retained this saying (it's not the kind of thing a person "making up" Jesus' story as fiction would have been likely to include!), but that it is retained in the Sunday lectionary schedule, as well.  We need to wrestle with these difficult passages!
  • Perhaps I have the James passage, and our Presbyterian reaction to it, still in mind, but how do we deal with passages like verse 29, that seem to explicitly connect God's grace to a particular response on the part of a human being?
  • After healing the deaf man, Jesus again gives an instruction not to tell anyone what he has just done.  Why all the secrecy?  And why the attempt at secrecy that so clearly fails?